What do you give the man who has everything? Filmmaker Terrence Malick would give the guy a soul. Malick’s new film, Knight of Cups, features a haunted Christian Bale as Rick, a man who ponders his mid-life place in the universe as he drifts through L.A. streets, movie studios, elegant architectural spaces, wanders across deserts, and frolics on the beaches of Malibu. He is a successful screenwriter, but lacks inspiration and purpose. Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) is a nurse who helps hard cases at a local clinic. A woman of cool beauty and modest integrity, she sees through Rick’s shallow surface. Meanwhile, he has had an affair with an alluring married woman (Natalie Portman) and has gotten her pregnant. In an attempt to do the right thing, he declares his love for her, but she’ll have none of it. He continues to party with prostitutes, cavort with nude dancers in Las Vegas, and generally indulges in the excesses that appear to run rampant among Tinsel Town types. His hedonism only leads to greater angst and self-doubt. He endlessly ruminates on the meaning of life. Along the way there are tempters and guides, ranging from a Las Vegas stripper (Teresa Palmer) to a philosopher in a Buddhist garden (Peter Matthiessen). His life has been radically unsettled by the death of a brother with anger issues (Wes Bentley), and the predicament of an aging father (lumbering Brian Dennehy) who is miserable and lost in his final years.
Malick sets the stage with story that Rick’s father used to tell him as a boy:
Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.
As we hear the story, Rick crawls drunk on the floor of a bacchanalian Hollywood roof party, flirts with two women in pink wigs, and ends in a corner wearing a horse’s head. The next morning he’s shaken awake by an earthquake. What fools these mortals be! The very ground they stand on is uncertain. Rick himself is on shaky ground in his own life, which has lost its meaning. He seeks authenticity in a city where fabricated worlds and artificiality are a way of life. The film’s chapter titles are based on eight Tarot Cards: The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Hermit, Judgment, The Tower, The High Priestess, Death, and Freedom. Malick is well known for refusing to make his films easy to interpret. Storytelling, like the Tarot Cards, is subjective, a matter of multiple interpretations. Narratives and the cards are a means to shed light on life’s meaning, a way to discern destiny.
None of these ideas are spoilers. The core of the film in not about what happens next. Malick is working in the same experimental style he brought to the audacious Tree of Life in 2011, and with To The Wonderin 2012. The plot is not built on cause and effect. Images are intertwined with interior monologues and philosophical ruminations. There is little conventional dialogue; instead, we hear the continuous whispered hush of a character’s inner thoughts. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (now winner of three Academy Awards) turns the ersatz beauty of Las Vegas, Hollywood, and a variety of more natural landscapes into visual poetry. The soundtrack features Ralph Vaughan Williams’ opera The Pilgrim’s Progress (narration by the late Sir John Gielgud) along with an eclectic blend of classical and contemporary music. There are readings voiced by Ben Kingsley and even two Psalms read by Charles Laughton.
Stylistically, Knight of Cups is unorthodox and challenging, but emotionally it is muted. The density of the film’s ideas demands the viewer’s attention. Malick is creating a voyage into the realms of the metaphysical. I am certain many viewers will find the entire exercise pretentious. On second viewing, however, I abandoned initial expectations of a traditional narrative — and my aversion to sermonizing — to let the images and words wash over me. The result: Rick’s spiritual quest felt much more playful and artistically purposeful. Unlike Hollywood’s formula and franchise films, Malick’s experiments take effort.
Rick, of course, is The Knight of Cups. In the book Mystic Apprentice, Ken Luden describes that Tarot card:
“His quest is not of the action hero, the rebel, or the organizer. He is a free spirit who doesn’t impose himself on the world to make a mark; he allows the world to make its mark on him, for things to follow their natural course. The negative aspect is that he is uninvolved, unemotional, disconnected.”
A passive hero is a tough sell, but Malick fills his stream-of-conscousness quest with a lively energy. Each experience and its abstract ‘meaning’ is carefully balanced with its opposite: hedonism/sacrifice, ambition/fear, age/youth, reality/appearance, and many others. In one scene, Matthiessen explains the Buddhist way: “I teach this moment. Pay attention to this. Everything is perfect. Complete. Just as it is.” That is a good way to experience watching this film, as well. Take it from moment to moment. Shot entirely with natural light, with liberal use of jump cuts and often with a handheld camera, Malick prowls around his characters like a nimble phantom. Since Days of Heaven, Malick has assumed a God’s eye view of the world in his films. In the earlier movie, which followed the trajectory of a tragic love triangle, his camera soared over the expansive vistas of the Midwest and bore down on the smallest details of the land. Now narrative has become secondary to the curiosity of a camera that peers at and toys with its subjects.
There are plenty of contemporary directors who upend narrative: Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Harmony Korine, Lars Von Trier, Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke, Takashi Miike, and Gaspar Noé. These directors often use innovation in order to shock or titillate viewers. I admire Malick for continuing to jettison staid storytelling for the sake of exploring his dense moral vision. Viewing Knight of Cups takes mindfulness and an open-minded attitude. Just keep repeating the words of the Buddha: “Everything is perfect. Complete. Just as it is.”